Dynamic Range IV: Conclusions   11 comments

Central Oregon.  This type of scene requires a camera with good but not extreme dynamic range abilities.

Central Oregon. This type of scene requires a camera with good but not extreme dynamic range abilities.  Copyright MJF Images.  Please click on this image if you’re interested in it.

I know this hasn’t been the most straightforward of topics, but let’s try to end by putting dynamic range in proper context.  By the way, make sure to at least skim through Parts 1 – 3 first, then come back to this one. I started by pointing out the importance of dynamic range.  But then I proceeded to poke some holes in that idea.  To allay any confusion, let me tell you my current thinking on the subject:

      • Mostly it’s important to know the dynamic range capabilities of your camera.  Whether its dynamic range is high or more modest is not as important as knowing how much it has.  This will allow you to approach different lighting conditions with a good idea of whether you can successfully shoot in them.  And if so, whether you’ll need to employ graduated neutral density filters or other techniques.
      • Dynamic range is quickly becoming similar to megapixels.  That is, camera companies are exaggerating its importance in an effort to market newer models.  After all, their job is to make you upgrade your camera body before you really need to.
Sandy River, Oregon:  No great dynamic range required here!

Sandy River, Oregon: No great dynamic range required here!

Angkor Wat, Cambodia:  this is a high contrast thus tricky exposure, all about the details in the dark (not brightest) areas.  Copyright MJF Images.  Click on image if interested in it.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia: this is a high contrast thus tricky exposure, all about the details in the dark (not brightest) areas. Copyright MJF Images. Click on image if interested in it.

      • That said, the companies are really just responding to consumer demand.  The HDR trend that got going some years ago has had a real effect on how we capture and especially how we view images.  While (thankfully) the grungy, over-the-top HDR look has largely come and gone, a  push toward evening out tones is very widespread in nature photography today.
      • Combine the above point with our desire to photograph anything in any light and you have a recipe for the current trend toward cameras with ever-higher dynamic range.  I’m not sure this is all that healthy (see caveats below).
      • Now you tell me what you think about all this.  Do you like the HDRish imagery you see on the web?  Do you like some of it?  Do you think it’s overdone or natural?  Is the pendulum going to swing back or is this a trend destined to continue, driven by technological advances in sensor design and software capabilities?

 

The elephant tree of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.  Though it may not look like it, this is definitely a high dynamic range situation.  Copyright MJF Images.

The elephant tree of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Though it may not look like it, this is definitely a high dynamic range situation. Copyright MJF Images.

The Redwoods, California:  This is a fairly high dynamic range situation not because of the sun but because you need to retain detail in the bright spot in the ferns.  Copyright MJF Images.  Please click on image.

This redwood forest shot is a fairly high dynamic range situation not because of the sun but because you need to retain detail in deep shadows and in the bright ferns. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on image.

Caveats

There are many factors other than dynamic range that affect the ultimate range of brightness you can shoot in.  These combine with dynamic range to influence the variety of images you can capture.  If you know me at all, you know how important I think variety is in a portfolio.  But again, it’s not all about dynamic range:

      • The ability of post-processing software like Lightroom to compress or expand contrast just keeps getting better.  If you shoot in RAW (you are, aren’t you?) then you have much more control over dynamic range in post-processing than if you shoot in Jpeg.

As I explained in the 1st post in this series, your camera has a certain dynamic range capability.  If you avoid compressing that range (by turning the image into a Jpeg before it even leaves the camera) you then have some powerful software at your disposal, software that can go a long way toward bringing out shadow and highlight detail.

Navajo Arch, Utah:  I waited until the sunlight coming through the arch was filtered by clouds, so that the contrast wasn't too great.

Navajo Arch, Utah: I waited until the sunlight coming through the arch was filtered by clouds, so that the contrast wasn’t too great. Copyright MJF Images.

      • Tonal range is at least as important as dynamic range, maybe more so.  Tonal range is the number of different tones your camera uses to get through the dynamic range (which again is the total difference between brightest and darkest and still retaining some detail).

In other words, good tonal range makes for smooth transitions between dark and bright, while narrow tonal range can cause choppy, banded or otherwise unnatural looking transitions.  This is yet another criticism film shooters level at digital.

Lake Powell area, Arizona.  Copyright MJF Images.  Please click on image if interested.

Lake Powell area, Arizona. Copyright MJF Images. Please click on image if interested.

      • High dynamic range capabilities may make you a lazier photographer.  A narrower range can force you to adapt and limit yourself to shooting in suitable light.  Recall I’ve already pointed out that high dynamic range gives you more options during post-processing.  Sounds good right?  We want to be able to take pictures in all sorts of conditions and produce beautiful images.  That’s why camera makers are busy expanding dynamic range in their new models.

But is this a good thing?  Isn’t it better to learn how to look for better light, a better angle to avoid that over-bright spot, etc.  It’s like all learning in life.  Doesn’t it help to work around limitations, to meet and beat challenges?  It’s probably the better path toward becoming a good photographer, better than having everything under the sun available to you.  I’m not fully on board with this critique of high dynamic range (I like shooting in high contrast situations), but I can see the point.

This image on the Oklahoma prairie I captured with my point and shoot so there was no way to avoid letting the foreground go dark.

This image on the Oklahoma prairie I captured with my point and shoot so there was no way to avoid letting the foreground go dark.

      • The quality of light, like it does with most everything in photography, trumps dynamic range.  And good light tends to be soft, to have a narrow range (see above point).  The idea is that you don’t need very high dynamic range capability since good light tends to be low in contrast.

There are exceptions to this of course.  And it’s much more important in landscape than other types of photography.  But looked at in an admittedly skeptical way, high dynamic range just allows you to capture all of that ugly high-contrast light instead of just part of it.

Olympic Mountains Sunrise:  Anytime you're shooting into the sun (and aren't doing silhouettes) dynamic range is pretty important.  Copyright MJF Images.

Olympic Mountains Sunrise: Anytime you’re shooting into the sun (and aren’t doing silhouettes) dynamic range is pretty important. Copyright MJF Images.

      • Dynamic Range may not be as important for you as it is for other photographers.  As implied in the point above, the type of photography you’re doing and the the way your images will be displayed/used have a lot to do with how much dynamic range you need in a camera.

In fact, many pros want camera makers to make adjustable dynamic range a feature of new models.  You would adjust it like you do shutter speed, aperture and ISO.  And there are hints this is coming down the pike.  Sony’s new compact mirrorless camera, the A7s, supposedly has a sensor which adjusts its dynamic range depending on light conditions.  Not the same as user-controlled but going in that direction.

I hope you enjoyed this series.  Feel free to reblog, and make sure to comment below if you have anything to add, or even if you have questions.  I’m glad to respond to anything.  Click on one of the images to go to my main gallery page.  Contact me if you are interested in any of the images as a download or print.  Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

An image at Death Valley that will appear in a magazine soon!  Copyright MJF Images.

An image at Death Valley that will appear in a magazine soon! Copyright MJF Images.

 

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11 responses to “Dynamic Range IV: Conclusions

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  1. Your work is fabulous Michael and I so appreciate all the wonderful tips you provide us. This series was of particular interest to me.

  2. There’s a certain creative ability which which good photographers are born; it doesn’t come in the box with the camera; I can appreciate technical features only because they make me happier with my own photos, but the frustrated artist inside me is forever confined.

    • Agreed. Maybe the limits in photography are a bit more stringent than art done in other media, but I don’t think the act of working within limits is unique to photography. Maybe also all artists must be frustrated to be sure they’re still pushing the limits.

  3. I loved this series and today’s photos were spectacular. I think there is no stopping technology. Of course my phone doesn’t compare to my camera but in an “emergency” it doesn’t do bad. At the Japanese Garden the other evening there was a lady with a phone on a tripod having great fun. Thank you so much for all you do to help us take better photos and understand what we are doing. You are a great teacher.

  4. The image of Death Valley is spectacular. No wonder it got picked up by a magazine. 🙂

  5. I especially like the first and last photos. Just golden.

    I think many of the questions you raise depend on the assumptions a photographer starts with. I like the way nature looks so I want to enhance my image but stay within the range of what it was. Too much takes me away from natural. While other photographers might enjoy the technical aspects, I stumble through that to get to the composition and feel of the photo. The more my camera can help with dynamic range and other aspects the better. To me the camera is a tool to help me get to the final image I want.

  6. You truly are amazingly talented Michael, these photographs are testament to that!

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